The Negativity vs Usefulness Theory

There’s a thin line separating negativity and usefulness. This theory originates from the evening commute known as the ‘Brand Reaction Bus Club’. Having landed on two Facebook pages of established brands during the course of the day I couldn’t help but notice the negativity that filled both comments sections.

Despite the bad feeling from customers, both brands would be considered thriving market leaders. This got us Bus Clubbers talking about Uber and all their recent bad press, and how it actually doesn’t really matter when you’ve had a drink and just want to get home from the other side of town. At this point in time Uber are too useful, but if a challenger addressed the areas of weakness Uber could lose ground very quickly.

Our affinity for the negative is an evolutionary trait. A caveman out gathering food for his family survived only if he was sharply attuned to attacks from potential predators. Those that survived would pass on these genes. This remains with us and is known scientifically as the ‘negative bias’. It regards our tendency to have a greater sensitivity to the negative than the positive.

Negative publicity and usefulness are two lines that criss cross. Saying negative publicity is good publicity is true to a point — but what is the ACTUAL point at which negativity affects the brand? The answer is usefulness. Once that line is crossed the decline of a brand is swift and can be fatal. To illustrate this we have an example from within Desktop Publishing Software.

QuarkXpress is one of the great business failures of modern tech. Throughout the 1990’s Quark had a 95% market share. Fast-forward to 2004 and this had slipped to just 25%. Quark became so comfortable as a front-runner they lost their position of power through complacency.

In 2002 when the Apple OS X was released Quark decided against supporting it with an update. This was affectively a slap in the face for the Design community who had been the ones keeping a pre Jobs Apple afloat. When users complained, CEO Fred Ebrahimi, announced that the complainers should go somewhere else if they didn’t like it. They did.

Adobe and specifically InDesign were the disruptors in waiting ready to take advantage of Quark sailing too close to the line where negativity and usefulness meet. One user described Adobe’s product and approach as if they’d locked the entire target market in a room for a year and only let them out once they’d come up with all the right ideas. On top of this they were charging half the price. Quark avoided innovation, kept their pricing high and ignored their customers and as a result conceded 70% of their market share.

Fast forward to today and it’s Adobe who must avoid complacency. There are murmurs of discontent from the Design community. Users like the idea of a perpetual license, which was a part of their initial offering. The subscription model they now offer also makes Adobe a lot more expensive than when they usurped Quark. The general consensus is that Adobe are flying just the right side of the Negativity / Usefulness line but things can change very quickly as they demonstrated in the early 2000’s.

Author: Alistair McDowall & Ben Ryder-Smith

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